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Indiana Legislators Push Back Against Advocates For State-Funded Pre-K

Rachel Morello/Indiana Public Broadcasting

A pre-K advocacy group made up of Indiana businesses and philanthropic organizations asked a group of legislators on Wednesday to give more funding to pre-K scholarships for low-income families, and legislators pushed back.

The advocacy group, which includes representatives from United Way, Eli Lilly and PNC Bank, among others, testified before the interim study committee on fiscal policy.  The committee will have influence over what is included in the state budget when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Those who support the expansion of pre-K, say Indiana businesses and philanthropic groups have invested millions of dollars in pre-K scholarships in Marion County. They want the legislature to step up and help fund the effort long term.

“We need a great education system to develop the workforce we need,” Connie Bond Stuart, PNC Regional President, told the committee.

Currently, Indiana is piloting a pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, which serves a few hundred low-income kids in five counties. The speakers advocating for expansion asked the study committee on fiscal policy to consider expanding these scholarships to more places in the state.

Bond Stuart says local businesses like PNC Bank and other companies want to continue funding this effort, but feel they need more support from the state to make it sustainable.

Tim Brown, R- Crawfordsville, and chair of the House Ways and Means committee, says if philanthropic groups feel so strongly about the cause, they shouldn’t expect tax payers to foot most of the bill.

“That just rubs me the wrong way,” Brown says.

Bond Stuart and others who testified say this is a worthwhile use of taxpayer money because the state would receive a return on the investment.

The group commissioned an economic impact report that shows expanding state-funded scholarships so more four-year-olds could attend high quality pre-K would save money in other areas. For example, the report says special education needs would drop 12 percent, and remediation and grade repetition would drop 18 percent. This would allow for that money to be reallocated to scholarships.

But Brown and other Republicans on the committee pushed the various speakers on the sustainability of such a program.

“It’s pretty easy to say to us ‘you need to do this,’” says Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown. “The hard part is to sustain. That’s a message we’re going to have to deliver this year.”

Michael O’Connor of Eli Lilly says his group didn’t put a specific price tag on the program because it wants to slowly grow and expand throughout the state. And, he says, the pushback from legislators is because they are used to viewing financial requests as single line items, rather than long term goals.

“The elected officials have to sometimes step outside the normal boundaries of the normal government financial decision making and say what are were going to spend money on make a decision on what are we going to invest in,” O’Connor says.

Governor candidates, Democrat John Gregg and Republican Eric Holcomb, are advocating for expanded pre-K.

The General Assembly will have the opportunity to address the issue when the session begins in January.

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